Fifth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

July 5, 2020

Lessons:

Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:8-15
Romans 7:15-25a
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

 

A reflection with four stanzas or, four movements. Let’s call the four Joy, Love, Confusion, and – because there is a symmetry in beginning where we ended – Joy again.

One. Joy.

Rejoice greatly, says the prophet Zechariah. These words are not phrased as a suggestion nor as an invitation. They are phrased as a command. Rejoice greatly, says the prophet speaking on God’s behalf. And maybe that suggests that joy is a holy act and a subversive act.

Dan Savage, the wonderful advice columnist and activist and champion of GLBTQ rights, has said homophobia and transphobia and all of their cousin phobias can more or less deal with gay folks and trans folks hanging out in seedy clubs and doing seedy things in the seedy darkness. But that what these phobias and their owners cannot deal with it, what really rots their socks, is gay and trans folks finding everyday joy out in the daylight: GLBTQ folks going about their lives, raising kids, washing dishes, riding bicycles, being startled by the beauty of sunsets, the list goes on. That is because it is in these everyday acts of joy that we discover our full humanity and the full humanity of our neighbour.

Similarly, in this season of moral awakening, a season in which we are, as a culture, are thinking deeply about racial justice, we are hearing an important reminder. And that is this: Yes, listen to stories about black pain. But also, equally importantly, listen and celebrate stories of black joy. Absolutely, read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. But also read Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Black joy matters for the same reason that GLBTQ joy matters. Because grief and suffering are part of being alive. But they are not the whole story. You need joy to have the whole story, to be fully human. When we honour our neighbour’s joy we honour their humanity, we see the image of God in them.

So rejoice greatly. And pay attention and celebrate as your neighbour rejoices greatly.

Two. Love.

The Lord is loving to everyone

says the Psalmist

Compassion is all over God’s works.

As the feminist theologian, Ellen Clark-King says, God’s love is promiscuous. I adore Ellen’s language for a lot of reasons, one of those reasons being that it reminds us that the love of God is neither safe nor neat. Rather God’s love is transgressive and even dangerous.

Sometimes we try to force God into safe and neat categories. We tell God: you belong in this building, but not outside; you belong with these people, but not with those; this is where, God, your holiness is properly contained. But God won’t go along with our plans. We are like children trying to do that thing where you try to hold water cupped in your hands. Try as you might, God’s water runs out. Not all of it runs out – your hands remain wet and holy – but so does everything else.

Now, a major caveat before we go any further. The promiscuousness of God’s love, the go-everywhereness of God’s living water: this is not some cosmic moral relativism, where God is totally okay with you and me no matter how much we harm creation or harm our neighbour or harm ourselves. No. It is precisely because God loves you and me and loves us beyond limit that God confronts us in our sin.

Now, I realise that sin is a loaded word, so let me be clear that when I use that word I am not referring to anything as trivial as masturbation or listening to rock and roll.

Rather, what I mean by the word sin is basically the same thing that I mean by the word:

selfishness.

More on that in a second.

God loves you. And God wants you and me to be allies with God in sharing God’s promiscuous love, to participate in the compassion that is all over God’s works, in letting the waters of justice flow everywhere. If we allow it to be, if we put down our selfishness, our efforts to hoard God’s love, this might just be good news.

Three. Confusion.

I do not understand my own actions.

says Paul

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

Paul has a number of really famous lines. This particular one probably makes the top ten. Paul never says what the thing he hates is, never names what he elsewhere calls the thorn in his side, and so he has left room for generations of people to identify their own struggle in his struggle. You will meet alcoholics who are convinced that Paul was an alcoholic, compulsive gamblers who are convinced that Paul was a compulsive gambler, gay men who are convinced that Paul spent his life stuck in the closet.

This is not, by the way, a deficiency in anyone’s reading of scripture, nor is it a deficiency in Paul’s writing. Rather this is the genius of Paul. Whatever your struggle is, whatever your sin or your selfishness is, Paul is talking to you.

Because I don’t know about you, but there sure are times when I don’t understand my own actions, when I do they very thing that I hate.

I don’t understand why it is that I study and pray with the Gospel and yet I tolerate what Dorothy Day called the dirty, rotten system. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in my neighbour must sleep on the street. I don’t understand why I tolerate the dirty, rotten system in which my neighbour’s encounters with the police are regularly terrifying. I don’t understand – and I speak these words as the owner of shiny new iPhone – why I tolerate dirty, rotten the system in which my neighbour who built that iPhone is working in conditions straight out of the horrors of a Dickens novel.

I don’t understand why anyone tolerates a dirty, rotten system that is more or less okay with a pile of more than a hundred thousand bodies from COVID-19 so that we can tell stories of facile economic optimism.

Just like Paul, I am hurting. Just like Paul, I am confused.

Four. Joy.

This is where we began.

The Son of Man came eating and drinking,

says Jesus,

and they say,

Look,

a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!

This is one of my favourite things that Jesus ever says in scripture. This is the moment when Jesus reveals that likes going to parties so much that his critics give him heat for it. This is the moment when, all of those oil paintings and sculptures of super-serious Jesus notwithstanding, we discover that Jesus loves wine and bread and being with you and being alive.

Jesus is a party animal.

Amen.

This is not a triviality. Because joy, delight, curiosity, wonder, playfulness – they will change the world. The dirty rotten system that I was talking about a second ago – the system of sin and selfishness – cannot deal with joy. Because joy asks it dangerous questions.

The system relies on the God damn lie that our neighbours are less than human, that they are something less than the very image of God. But joy will have none of that. In sharing a party, in sharing in the holiness of a meal, joy sees us bonded together in delight. Our mutual humanity becomes inescapable, undeniable.

The system relies on the God damn lie that the exploitation of the earth, of its creatures, of our fellow human beings is the price of admission for a healthy economy. But joy laughs at that. And the system, just like the devil, withers before laughter. Joy knows about mutual thriving and vitality without exploitation.

The relies on the God damn lie that that it is inevitable, that it is like the sun rising in the morning, that there is no way that things could be different. But joy, delight, playfulness ask that childish and wonderful question:

Why?

Why do things have to be as they are?

Joy dreams of another world.

Jesus is at the table. There is a feast all around him: bread and wine and more. He is there with the tax collectors; with the sinners; with the people you saw sleeping on the street, homeless no more; with the immigrants, with the guy wearing the MAGA hat – who is seriously confused as to what he is doing at this party, but who is starting to have fun in spite of himself – with the trans kid, looking fierce and fabulous in her new dress; with your lonely neighbour; with everyone.

If you want, with you. There is a place for you at the table.

Jesus is drinking and eating and telling and listening to stories and laughing hard.

There is joy. Joy enough for everyone.

 

 

 

The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost by the Reverend Martin Elfert

June 28

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

 

 

Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.

The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.

Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.

The speech begins this way, with two instructions:

First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.

Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.

Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.

Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.

Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:

The kingdom of heaven

has come near.

Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…

And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.

If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.

And then Jesus keeps on going:

You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.

And then Jesus repeats the instruction:

Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.

You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.

Do not be afraid, Jesus says.

But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.

Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…

Jesus, Is this good news?

And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.

You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.

This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.

Take up your cross.

Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.

Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.

These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.

This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.

Could it possibly be that simple?

Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?

Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 28, 2020

Lessons:

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4,15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

 

Just before the climax of a great many books and movies and plays, there is a speech that changes everything.

The speech comes at halftime at the big game or on the eve of the final battle or as the ragtag bunch of misfits are about to descend into the cave or the dungeon or the sewer and face the monster. Morale is low, our protagonists are figuratively and sometimes literally on their knees. And the speech – given by the coach, the queen, the least socially awkward of the misfits – is what allows them to get up and continue.

Jesus gives a speech like that today. There are twelve people in Jesus’ gang of misfits, twelve people plus Jesus himself to make a Messiah’s Dozen. Let’s imagine that you and I are each one of the twelve. Jesus gathers us in the locker room – if you’re following along at home, we’re at the very beginning of Chapter Ten in Matthew’s version of this story – and he stands up on one of the benches, he takes a breath, and he proceeds to give us a speech so alarming and strange and beautiful that it would get a lesser coach fired, fired even before he stepped down back onto the locker room floor.

The speech begins this way, with two instructions:

First, Jesus says, you have authority. You have authority to cast out demons and to heal everything and everyone and to raise the dead.

Maybe we look at each in confusion. Do we have that authority? These kind of seem like varsity level miracles. But before anyone can put their hand up to ask a clarifying question, Jesus keeps on going.

Second, do not get ready. Don’t take money, don’t take a change of clothes, leave your smart phones at home.

Now, if any of you were Boy or Girl Scouts you will know that even though the speech has barely begun, Baden Powell is audibly grinding his teeth right now. Do not be prepared, Jesus says. Not even a little bit.

Unprepared, Jesus says, you are to go. You are to leave this building, go outside, go into the community, and there you are to proclaim the good news. You are to say:

The kingdom of heaven

has come near.

Now, if folks welcome you, let your peace be upon them. But if they don’t welcome you…

And maybe some of us start rubbing our hands together now, because if Jesus has given us the authority to heal and cast out demons and raise the dead, then Jesus must also be giving us the power to destroy anyone who crosses us. We’re waiting for him to give us laser vision and Spiderman webs enough strength to lift someone in the air and huck them into next week. We are going to mop the floor with these suckers.

If folks don’t welcome you, Jesus says, then clean off your shoes. Shake the dust off of them. And then keep on going. There will be judgment. But that is God’s work. Not yours.

And then Jesus keeps on going:

You are going to be handed over, Jesus says – handed over meaning being put into the back of the truck or the train or into the room without windows, the bolt in the door sliding hard into place behind you. Handed over meaning that control over your life belongs to someone else. You will be beaten and dragged before the authorities.

And then Jesus repeats the instruction:

Do not get ready. Do not be prepared. You might want to prepare a defence, but don’t.

You don’t need to. The Spirit of your Father will speak through you.

Do not be afraid, Jesus says.

But then he adds something that, maybe, sounds less than reassuring.

Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known.

Again we look at each other: Nothing? Including that time that I…

Jesus, Is this good news?

And Jesus says: Do not be afraid.

You might think I have come to bring peace. I haven’t. I have come to bring brass knuckles, a gun, a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. If there is a relationship in which one person has power over another, I am going to turn that into a fight.

This is the part of the speech that changes everything in which Jesus’ voice is getting louder, his gestures more animated, the spit leaving his holy lips with greater velocity.

Take up your cross.

Take it up. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

And then, after all of that, here comes the climax of the speech. Jesus says this part quietly.

Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones – they will never lose their reward.

These are the orders. This is the end of the speech.

This speech is alarming and strange and beautiful. It is so, so confusing. And here at the end, it is so, so simple.

Could it possibly be that simple?

Could it be that the test for whether or not you and I are following the Gospel is really as simple as the question: Did we give a cup of cold water to the little ones? Did we give a cup of cold water to the ones who thirst?

Jesus steps down off the bench and walks out of the room. He leaves us there with the echo of his words. Jesus has given the speech that changes everything. And now. Now you and I have to decide if we will do as he has told us.

The Second Sunday After Pentecost by the Rev. Martin Elfert

June 14

Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:23

 

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Holy smokes, there is a lot going on that sentence. As Paul speaks these words – or as the person reading Paul’s words to the folks in Rome speaks them – I can imagine their voice rising steadily in intensity and excitement. Here in Paul’s letter there is this sequence, this holy chain of cause and effect, all of which lead us to the love of God through the Holy Spirit.

Like a lot of things in the Bible, these words come and go so fast that they are done almost before they begin. As the sportscasters sometimes say, blink and you’ll miss it.

So, what I’d like to do this morning is to zoom in on this sequence. If we had an hour together, we could look at every step. But given the limits of time, what I would like to focus on with you is one idea or virtue in particular, and that is character.

Character is kind of an old-fashioned notion or word, one that we hear about today less than we once did. Although I think that we mean something very similar very similar to character when we talk about integrity. Maybe you have seen the sign on the wall of the classroom at a child’s school.

Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.

And there is something to that saying. To find a wallet, for instance (and I have actually found multiple wallets across the years, I don’t know what that means) is to be faced with at least a tiny bit of temptation. Everybody likes found money, there are few things as delightful as five dollars blowing in the breeze, manna from heaven. Except when that money is within a wallet – here are driver’s license, credit card, everything – you have the means to return it to its owner. And no one will know if you don’t.

To have integrity, absolutely, is to return the wallet and its cash even though no one is looking. And the more that you practice doing this, the less of an internal debate it becomes, the more it becomes a virtuous habit. Your character is supported and indeed created by behaving in a moral way. And to pop back a little earlier in Paul’s sequence, all of that is supported by your experience of suffering: because you know something about loss, you have the moral imagination to know what it must be like to lose a wallet. And so the virtue gets a little easier every time.

But I want to argue with or add to the sign on the school wall a little. And I think I’ve shared this with you before, but I am thinking of it in a new way now. In addition to saying integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking I want to add:

And

Integrity is doing the right thing when everyone is looking and expecting you to do the wrong thing.

One of the things of which I am most ashamed happened in the schoolyard when I was, maybe, ten years old.. And I had a classmate who, maybe, we somewhere on the autistic spectrum. We didn’t use or know the word autism back then. We just knew that this classmate – I’m going to call him Paul – was weird.

Paul was a popular target with bullies. That’s because Paul cried and yelled – and I don’t understand this about human beings, but I know that it is true – and there was something delicious to us about drinking in other’s pain.

On this particular day at camp, a group of children had Paul surrounded. There was a circle, Paul was in the middle of it, and the children took turns lobbing taunts at him. It looked a little bit like an ancient scene of someone being stoned.

Paul’s fists were bunched up, his face was the picture of terror and rage:

Leave me alone! he screamed

Leave me alone!

And I stood there.

And I did nothing as Paul pleaded for it to stop.

I am thankful that a photograph of that moment does not exist. I am thankful because I don’t know what I would do to be confronted that directly with evidence of my passivity before cruelty, before evil. And I am thankful for another reason. I am thankful because I am afraid that in that photograph I might see evidence on my face that I too was taking pleasure in Paul’s suffering, that I too was drinking of his pain.

What if I wasn’t just passive?

What if I liked it?

Eventually, a classmate who had more character than me intervened. He stepped into the middle of the circle and put his arm over Paul’s shoulder and led the shaking and weeping boy away.

The horror of George Floyd’s murder is not only a police officer kneeling on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. It is three other police officers watching and doing nothing – nothing, that is, except to make sure that none of the neighbours intervene. And in a way, their passivity and complicity is almost the bigger horror. Because an individual police officer or soldier or prison guard or plain-old citizen behaving in a deeply cruel way is something that we can explain away as the actions of a psychopath – those actions are awful, but they hold no comment and no condemnation for the rest of us. But when a horror is facilitated by a circle of police officers or a circle of children that is awful at an entirely new level.

It has been almost forty years since I watched Paul’s humiliation, Paul’s stoning. Almost forty years since I did nothing. Almost forty years since, God forbid, I maybe enjoyed what I was watching.

I want to believe that I would act differently today. I want to believe that I have more character now than I had then. And if that is true, if my character or integrity has grown since those days, then I owe that in significant part to my classmate who stepped into the middle of the circle and rescued Paul. That classmate showed me – showed all of us – that another, better world was possible. That we are not condemned to watching evil passively, to participating in evil.

It is Richard Rohr who says that Jesus always goes towards the pain. And that is what my classmate did all those years ago. He stepped into the middle of that circle of pain and he rescued Paul and, maybe, he rescued all of us, all of us who were debasing ourselves by participating in that schoolyard stoning. In the midst of suffering, he enduringly showed us character. Character which leads to hope. And hope which does not disappoint us, because always, always leads us to the love of God.

 

Trinity Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

June 7 Up

June 7 Down

Lessons:

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Matthew 28:16-20

Psalm 8

 

I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted.

I am physically exhausted, emotionally exhausted, spiritually exhausted, full of grief. There has been so much loss and hurt and anxious uncertainty during this pandemic. To use the particular example of church, the appearance of Covid-19, partway through this past winter, forced us radically reinvent our models for community. Suddenly, without really any runway to work with, Jeanne and you and me were asking the question: what does being church right now look like? It’s been cool to answer that question with you. And it’s also been one of the most intense things that I have ever done, certainly the most intense thing that I have ever done in and around a church.

And then the reappearance of the America’s ancient pandemic, which is racism or white supremacy, added another layer. Well, that last sentence is probably inaccurate, because reappearance implies that white supremacy went away for a while. And it did not. What we had was a forceful reminder of America’s ancient pandemic via George Floyd’s murder, via the subsequent protests, and via the violence which so many of those protests have been greeted.

I’m going to admit that I am a little nervous about sharing my exhaustion with you, my grief with you. I am nervous because I am someone who really likes to appear to be calm and in control, and to visibly be neither of these things is hard. And I am nervous as well because I hear and applaud the activists who say: White people. Don’t you make this moment about you. Amen. Folks like me mustn’t do that.

There are three reasons that I am choosing to fight through my nervousness and name my exhaustion with you. First, my sense from talking with so many of you is that this exhaustion is something in which a lot of you share. One of you this week, when sharing with me about the experience of watching the police raining tear gas down on protestors, described your feelings of helplessness. I know about that helplessness. Another one of you spoke of the fear that you are feeling. I know about that fear. Still another one of you spoke of your grief. I know about that grief. Many of you have spoken about your anger at watching still more violence against black bodies. I know about that anger. And equally many of you have told me about the loss that is to unable to touch, to hug friends or children or grandchildren. I know about that loss.

We have a deep need as human beings to know that our hurt is seen. And I see your hurt. I see you.

Second, if my experience is anything like what is typical, you may be feeling confused or conflicted or even embarrassed about your fear or your grief or your helplessness. My colleague Sylvia is an inveterate youth minister, and she spent a number of years working with youth in a thoroughly privileged context. And what Sylvia says is that a number of the youth with whom she worked became depressed and they had this double challenge that not only did they have to battle depression but they had to battle the shame that they felt about their depression. They were aware that they were privileged and, indeed, radically privileged, that there were millions if not billions of people in the world who did not have the resources that they had. How silly, how pathetic, they thought to themselves, that I have all of this and I am depressed.

Maybe, if you are like me, you are experiencing something similar now. I am well fed, I am financially stable, I am about as safe as it is possible to be. Is it pathetic or unworthy of mention that I am exhausted, that I am encountering grief and anger and helplessness? Maybe this is stuff about which I should just put away, that I should just keep to myself.

Except – and I say this at just about every funeral at which I have the privilege of serving at – trying to put away grief never, never, never works. The idea of achieving closure on grief is one of the most destructive notions circulating in our culture. You cannot close a box on grief.

Perhaps you had the experience as a child of being at a swimming pool or in a lake or the ocean and trying to hold a ball underwater. It takes all of your effort, all of your concentration, to hold that ball down. And the instant that either your focus or your grip slips, that ball will go ballistic and smack you in the face. Trying to deny our exhaustion, our grief, our anger – trying to achieve closure on it – is just the same. We will end up a prisoner of our exhaustion and our grief. What if, therefore, naming our hurt is not an impediment to participating in working for justice but is actually a prerequisite for it? What if doing the work of grieving is what is going to permit us to let go of that ball, let it float to the surface, so that we can focus on what matters, which is declaring and insisting that black lives matter.

Third, and last of all – and here I am drawing on the wonderful Jesuit Priest, James Martin – what if our anger, our sadness, our grief, our exhaustion is something holy and, therefore, something worthy of our attention? What if what we are hearing through this emotion is our conscience speaking or, if you prefer, is the Holy Spirit speaking, is God speaking?

When you see something deeply unjust, it is a risk that we will slip into despair. But what if the heavy emotion that you feel – and that millions and millions of other people feel – is the emotion of God. What if that is evidence that God is with us?

There is a famous icon of the Trinity. I’ve shared this with you before, but it bears repeating on this Trinity Sunday. It is an image of three people, all but identical. In some understandings or readings, these are the three who visit Abraham and Sarah in their tent. In every reading, these three are the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, and Friend; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Infinity, Immanence, and Intimacy.

In the lower part of the of the icon there is a patch of what some folks think is glue. And there is a guess that what was glued upon it was a mirror. If that’s right, then there is a fourth member to the Trinity. And that is you. And me. And everyone else.

Look into that mirror and see. That God is with us. That God shares with us in our exhaustion and grief. That our divine shared hurt is evidence of God’s longing for wholeness, for love, for justice, for what the Kingdom. That they are proof that God is with us and that, as we act to bring justice nearer, to bring the dignity of every human being closer to reality, to insist that black lives matter, that God will act with us.

Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

May 31, 2020

Lessons:

Acts 2:1-21
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
John 20:19-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

 

It is the Feast of Pentecost and it is an overcast day in Portland, Oregon. The sermon that you are about to hear is one that I recorded several days ago and that I wrote several days before that. And while there is lots that is awesome about pre-recording things ­­– as you will see in the sermon, you can do things when you pre-record that you can’t do in real time ­– there’s also some limitations built into it. And one of the big limitations is that you are preaching from the past, you are not speaking in the present moment.

And because in the sermon I am preaching from the past, I do not explicitly mention the murder of George Floyd, nor do I explicitly mention the subsequent protests against police violence, against white supremacy in our culture. And that’s something that I would do if I were giving this sermon in real time with you this morning, I’d make some real-time edits to it to speak to those subjects that are so much on my heart and so much on so many of your hearts right now.

I think in many ways these subjects are present in this sermon: it’s a reflection about trauma and about loss and about grief and about injustice and about how God is present in these things. But it doesn’t speak to George Floyd explicitly or police violence explicitly, and I wish that it did.

One of the great prophets of or time is Austin Channing Brown. A prophet being, in the Biblical sense, not a fortune teller but a present teller. And she shared something recently that I’d like to share with you this morning. It’s a little reflection called Trouble the Narrative. And it goes like this:

If you think all we need for this moment in history is to ask “What would MLK do?” It’s time for you to trouble the narrative. It’s time for you to move beyond simplistic, convenient narratives and wrestle with complexity and nuance. It’s easy to believe that the 1960s had only one leader, MLK, and that he led the perfect protests and that those protests are what led to change. And as much as I honor King, that is entirely ahistorical. The 1960s were filled with protests like King’s but also rebellions (riots) like the ones we’ve seen over the last few years. Both forms of protest put pressure on politicians. Both forms of protest were covered by media. Both forms of protest were in a tug and pull with one another. Both forms of protest were met with violence. Both forms of protest have always existed- together, in one exhale of the Black community. It is, quite frankly, lazy to accept child-like answers to questions like “what would King say?” Or “what would Jesus do?” Or “but isn’t violence always wrong?” Or “does the gospel have anything to do with race?” Or “but aren’t we all just human?” Or “but why can’t they just xyz?” TROUBLE THE NARRATIVE. King was human- growing, learning constantly. And since MLK was assassinated we have no idea what he would think about the fact that cops are still killing Black civilians in 2020. Trouble the narrative. Jesus held a one man riot over capitalism in the temple, but you think he’d be calm about George Floyd? Trouble the narrative. You find violence intolerable when it’s poor Black folks, but not when it’s white folks after a football game? Not when it’s America’s wars? Not when it’s stand your ground? Not when it’s ICE or patrols at the border? Trouble the narrative. History, Scripture, Social Revolutions, Black Struggle cannot be boiled down into one convenient sentence. It’s condescending, lazy, and uneducated. It’s thoughtless. And thoughtless isn’t what we need right now. Trouble the narratives of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Or else we will keep repeating this cycle.

Amen.

[A pause. Then.]

In the list of universal, or close to universal, human experiences, lying on your back in the summertime has got to be somewhere near the top. The warmth of the ground, the hum of the afternoon, the song of the birds, the buzz of insects. Maybe, if you listen closely enough, even the heartbeat of the earth, far below your body.

Sometimes, when I do this, when I lay on my back in the summer, I imagine that I can actually feel the spinning of the globe. And so I hold on to the sod, lest the centripetal force hurl me up, up and away. Even in the stillness of the grass, this holding on is just a little bit thrilling.

And then there is the sky above. Our ancestors – some of them – anyway, reckoned that they were looking at a great body of water in the sky, an ocean above them. This is why the creation story at the start of Genesis speaks of the waters above in addition to the waters below. The waters above are held in place by a great dome. Except sometimes, the dome leaks a little, and rain falls upon us.

Every day at dusk, the waters drain out of the sky, and the sun, maybe in a chariot, rides to the far side of the mountains and the far side of the waters below. And we are left with the new mystery, which is the night sky and the stars.

But right now it is neither raining nor nighttime. Right now is the warmth and the still of the summer day.

Underneath the dome but still above you and me are the clouds.

That one looks like a dog.

The one looks like a dragon. You can see the scales on its tail.

If I am right in guessing that this experience is universal or almost universal, then Jesus did this very thing, lying on his back in the grass looking up at what are sometimes called the heavens. And Jesus’ friends did it too: Peter and John and James, the sons of thunder, and Martha and Mary and the other Mary. Up they looked. Together.

Until one day, after the resurrection, all of the friends looked up and, as they looked, they realised that Jesus was gone from their peripheral vision. The indentation that he left in the grass was still there, but Jesus was not. Had he gone for a drink of water? Gone for a walk? Or just plain old gone, disappeared the way that Jesus sometimes did.

He had been disappearing a lot since the morning when they found his tomb empty.

But then one of them spotted him.

Up.

At first he was just a handful of yards up in the air. But then more, and more, like he was holding onto those great cluster of helium balloons like they have in comic books. As he rose, Jesus didn’t talk and his friends didn’t talk. His friends lay there and they watched him get smaller and smaller and smaller until, maybe, he was even with the clouds and then passing through a cloud, slipping out of vision and then back into the blue again. Until finally they could not see him at all.

Oh.

In music, they speak of the reprise of a theme. Sometimes the reprise has variations. One of my favourite pieces of music is Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini. Do you know it?

[Music.]

It goes like that. The theme is simple enough. But then the piano and the wider orchestra does one amazing thing after another with that first handful of notes. These variations are beautiful and new again and again and again. The original theme is always preserved – the variations are like turning a crystal in the sun and seeing light upon light.

The Ascension of Jesus followed by the coming of the Holy Spirit is a kind of reprise or variation on the cross and the resurrection. In both Luke and Acts – two books that are written by the same person, Luke being the only of the Gospel writers who felt that the Gospel needed a sequel – the same sequence or pattern takes place around both events.

In both cases, Jesus has this conversation with his friends in which they ask when he is going to restore Israel’s fortunes, when he is going to put things right, when he is going to lead a revolution. In both cases, Jesus replies with a mystical and a strange and an unsatisfactory answer. Jesus is then lifted up – first, onto the cross, second into the air – as his friends watch in confusion and horror: We can’t be losing him. In both cases, the friends in their grief focus on the place where they last saw his body: the tomb, the sky. In both cases these two men in white robes appear. And they say: Why are you looking for him here?

And in both cases, a little time passes then. Until one day, not so long after Jesus left and the men in the robes appeared, Jesus’ friends encounter God in a new way. First in the raised and contradictory body of Jesus – murdered and yet alive, instantly recognisable and yet not recognisable at all, eating and drinking and yet passing through doors. And then second in the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit which is like a violent wind, which is like fire, which is like being filled up, which is like being able to communicate without limitation, which is like blood and fire and mist, which is like prophecy, which is like dreaming dreams, which is like being drunk at nine in the morning.

The Spirit which is like holy possibility.

But the Disciples don’t know any of that as they look upon the cross and then look up into the empty sky. On these moments, all that they see is loss, all that they know is grief.

Very truly, I tell you,

Jesus once said to them,

unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;

but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

So much has changed. We have lost so, so much. What if this moment, as we look into the blue emptiness, is when God is doing a new thing? What if we will look back on this day and we say, that is the day when the wonder began, that is the day when the Spirit came among us?

 

The Fourth Sunday of Easter by the Reverend Martin Elfert

My friend and mentor Bill died a week ago. Bill went to sleep on Friday night and he never woke up. As near as anyone can figure, he was doing fine when he turned out the lights on April 24th. He had just sent an email to a bunch of friends in which he wondered out loud about life in pandemic. “We have lost things we value very deeply,” Bill wrote to his friends, “and we don’t know for sure that we will get them back.” And then he went to bed. And then, well, that was the end of his life.

Several folks have asked how Bill might have died, if COVID-19 was the culprit. And I guess it could have been and I guess I understand why people want to know – this plague is so much on our minds now. But I’m also not sure how much I care. No matter what the answer to that question may be, whether Bill died of COVID-19 or an aneurism or a heart attack or from some cause that will never be known, he remains equally dead. He is equally gone from my life and from the lives of so many other people who loved him.

What I do know is that, with Bill’s dying, my grief has a focus that it didn’t have before. Thanks to COVID-19 and its many economic and social side effects, a lot of us right now are experiencing grief or loss or even trauma. But this grief – at least for me, I don’t know about for you – often had an amorphous or diffuse flavour until now. Life was going okay, I guess, and yet I was regularly worn down and regularly sad and regularly anxious, as though I were personally carrying the weight of everything.

For the many of us who knew and loved Bill, there is now a specific reason for our sadness. Bill’s death is a rip off for him and for his family. He had retired just recently and he would have made such good use of the 20 or even 30 years that were properly due to him; he was only 66 when he died. And it is a rip off for me personally to have his laughter and kindness and wisdom gone from my life.

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the day on which we always hear from the Gospel of John and the day on which we always read the most famous of the Psalms, Psalm 23. Psalm 23 is the Psalm that, in the Jewish and the Christian tradition alike, is read or sung at more funerals than any other.

Psalm 23 is beautiful. It is also weird and it speaks with authority and it speaks with intimacy.

Psalm 23 is weird because it is written in the first person. And if the Lord is my shepherd, that means that I am a sheep, something that I am not 100% certain I want to be. If you have ever hung out on a farm, you will know that sheep are startlingly stupid. And yet, maybe that is exactly why the image works. We go through this life and stuff happens: the death of a friend, a job loss, a diagnosis, a pandemic, and we have little or no idea why. There is comfort in trusting that we are accompanied by and guided by one who understands what is going on and who knows the path.

Psalm 23 speaks with authority because the one who speaks knows about suffering and hardship and unfairness. They know that following the Lord does not mean that you are insulated from or excused from these things. The Psalm does not say, the Lord is my shepherd, therefore nothing bad ever happens to me. It does not say, the Lord is my shepherd, therefore the prosperity Gospel is real. It says: the Lord is my shepherd and yet here is the valley of death. The Lord is my shepherd and yet here are enemies. The Lord is my shepherd and yet here is randomness and unfairness and suffering. Psalm 23’s promise isn’t that these things don’t happen. It is that, when they do, God isn’t somewhere else.

Psalm 23 speaks with intimacy because, partway through, it switches from the third person to the second. It begins speaking of the Lord, of he. But come verse 4, this changes. Now it speaks of you or, in the beloved language of the King James Version, of thou. In spite of all the hardship – maybe, somehow, because of all of the hardship? – there is a transition from a God whom I have heard about (“the Lord,” “him”) to a God whom I know (“you” or “thou”). Over the course of this journey, this walk with God, the words that we hear in the funeral rite come true: I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.

We are in the midst of pandemic. With job loss and illness and death and wild uncertainty about what the future holds. And Bill is dead. And in the midst of all of that, the Lord is my shepherd, the Lord is your shepherd, the Lord is our shepherd.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil;

for thou art with me;

thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.